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The greatest music debuts of all time #12: Saint Etienne’s Foxbase Alpha

I love to love the unique set of circumstances that caused this debut to exist. Those least likely pop stars of at the start of the 1990s weren’t even musicians for a start. Pete Wiggs and Bob Stanley tried out various female singers before settling on the sweetly celestial Sarah Cracknell.

But it was their studio chum – engineer Ian Catt – who contributed expert assistance in putting their first album together: Balearic beats, reggae basslines, summery vocals, and more than a hint of ’60s Swinging London grooviness — the quirky stoner charms of Saint Etienne made Cool Britannia a vivacious manifesto a good couple of years before it became a reality. 

Released in September 1991, Foxbase Alpha sounded like an episode from a parallel universe Doctor Who story, though was so named after a childhood in-joke about a place filled with, oh, you know, gorgeous people. It is both retro and modern, a love letter and a scrapbook, a gorgeous pastiche of symbiotic sounds and a compendium of private passions from Dusty Springfield to King Tubby, David Mamet to football, C86 to ambient house, and London, always London. This is the story of the splendicious debut. 

Who Do You Think You Are, Avenue, You’re In A Bad Way, He’s On On The Phone, and the double whammy of Join Our Club/People Get Real — as the eighties mutated into the nineties, Saint Etienne burst on to the scene with a quite splendid set of singles that gave the Pet Shop Boys a run for their (let’s make lots of) money, and, to my mind, certainly equal if not better than anything penned by that other greatest British songwriting duo Lennon and McCartney. This one could ruin and run, right?

As a former Melody Maker scribe, Bob Stanley found himself embroiled in this very generational debate, not only through what he wrote but also by being written about by his colleagues as he pursued extracurricular adventures in the Saint Etienne ranks. In his tastes, he was an entire mischief of magpies on his own, devouring acid house, bubblegum and French Yé-yé with equal relish, while also finding a place for the perceived higher art of canonical acts. 

Stanley was rightly withering of many of his contemporaries, perplexed by “people who got into music two years ago who think Jesus Jones are better than The Beatles” and saw no cause for celebration in the supposedly alternative mediocrities invading the charts in a charge of the featherweight brigade. 

Certainly, it was a curious time in a peculiar decade, in which many of the most prominent players gained their status from origins which were unlikely (Nirvana and Oasis) unpromising (Radiohead, Blur, Beck, Prodigy) or both (Manic Street Preachers).

When Bob Stanley formed Saint Etienne with his childhood friend turned music journalist colleague Pete Wiggs, they conjured up a perfect alchemy for making classic pan generational pop music. And with the dreamy celestial sounds of Essex girl Sarah Cracknell on vocals, the Surrey-Sussex lads were essentially a Home Counties combo with an unmistakably metropolitan hue.

The evidence of that urban sophistication runs through Foxbase Alpha like the River Thames through London, the only city on Earth where it could have been made. Though, parochially, Saint Etienne present their adopted hometown less as a global crossroads and more as a robust collision of villages (cf particularly much later on 2005’s Tales From Turnpike House).

The genre-hopping tour of their cosmopolis kicks off with a reminder of their Francophone roots: a snatch of scratchy radio dialogue introducing Match Of The Day-esque commentary on the Gallic football team who gave Saint Etienne their name and whose lurid green shirts were the last word in calico chic in the mid ’70s. “France….., Football!” she intones, though if you’re transported back to Radio Prague rather than Radio Etienne the coincidence is entirely non-coincidental: the odd, musty little samples of OMD’s Dazzle Ships was an admitted influence in Wiggs and Stanley’s lo-fi musique concrète creations on display here, and its follow-up, 1993’s So Tough.

Then it’s off to Laurel Canyon via Pimlico and Toronto for the song they announced themselves with – a cover of Only Love Can Break Your Heart by that hoary old rocker Neil Young. About time we had some more heresy here, so here goes: it’s a beautiful and poignant piece of work but I have no desire to familiarise myself with the original. I simply need it like a fish needs a bicycle. 

With its Kingston Park bassline, ragga riff and ubiquitous funky drummer loop, the Saint Etienne take is a tantalising tweak overlaid with the strident tones of one-off guest Moira Lambert (reissues of the album do sport an additional version with Sarah’s more empathetic lead). And it sums up that sultry hot summer of ’91 like no other, while simultaneously lifting the Canadian’s song out of the maudlin and into the sweetly sorrowful by way of the dancefloor. 

Everything But The Girl must have been fuming.

Following the trippy interlude of Wilson, Carnt Sleep – which does feature a cooing Ms C and hypnotic bass a-plenty – is a gentle lover’s rock amble into heartsick territory, with a drowsy guitar riff by Ian Catt which could have been lifted from Birmingham dub stars The Beat.

Girl V11 is more of a blurred groove, like a Balearic dream with a Beloved-eque bassline, and it’s utterly beautiful. With her crystal-clear diction, Sarah namechecks various exotic named places — from Australia to New York to Latin climes and on to various suburbs of London such as the Absolutely Fabulous Holland Park (not Shepherd’s Bush? — Ed…ina.) — it’s like a love letter to the big smoke. I like the name Dollis Hill the best, for some reason. Maybe it’s because Leeeeeee John lives there, and Steve interviewed him recently. 

The subtly cooing Spring is based around a loop of Dusty Springfield’s sixties curio I Can’t Wait Until I See My Baby’s Face. It’s rather like the musical cousin of the LP’s third single Nothing Can Stop Us Now — and as much as I love that 45 and its re-recorded version with Kylie Minogue I think perhaps Spring is the superior song, but both are utterly irresistible.

Foxbase Alpha is such a varied album. If you want pop songs you get them, if you want mood music you get that too. There’s attempts at early Chicago House meets The Grid and KLF at their tranciest (Stoned To Say The Least), Dolly Mixtures pastiching the Cocteau Twins (London Belongs To Me), while She’s The One is a banger based around an old soul sample of a guy going “In this world of ups and downs” to an almighty pounding snare drum.

And if you can imagine The Orb doing melancholy torch songs then you’ve just arrived at Like A Swallow. It’s a head-tune, catering for fans of The Orb. I saw them on a microdot once — The Orb not Saint Etienne, though I have seen ver Ets three times live, the most I’ve ever seen any band. So the impression they left was deep. 

And don’t you dare dismiss Dilworth’s Theme purely because it’s the last ‘song’ and is less than a minute long. In the spirit of the Time Bandits scene where Napoleon rants about similarly petite conquerors (“Alexander the Great – five feet exactly…Tamburlaine the Great – four foot nine and three quarters) I proffer a similar roll call of fat-free tunes: David Bowie’s Breaking Glass – 112 seconds; The Beatles’ Golden Slumbers – 91 seconds; Cockney Rebel’s Chameleon – 47 seconds; Saint Etienne’s Dilworth’s Theme – a dumpy little 38 seconds but a beautiful, rainy day drawing room reverie, like Bowie’s Eight Line Poem with the comedy cowboy locked out of the house. 

Enjoy this trip. And it is a trip. Because the very fact that it’ll take you less time to listen to it than to read what I’ve written here about it says plenty about its condensed glories.

The beauty of Foxbase Alpha is that it’s an album with an internal plan fully formed from the start. I know Saint Etienne were always referred to as not being serious or genuine, but it’s pop music and neither one of those adjectives need to refer to pop music. Inauthentic would be the other one tossed around, but that doesn’t detract from the first three classics (Tiger Bay would be my pick for the best of the bunch), and a volleyball of great and courageous singles.

Time has dated some of their contemporaries terribly (mentioning no names M People) but Saint Etienne’s sonic soundscapes remains absolutely fresh and as exciting now as it was over three decades ago – lush love letters from a carefree era. The ‘tienne had the last laugh. 

Now, would you like some sweets, Willy?

Mark Gibson, England


In 2009, Foxbase Alpha was officially “re-produced” by bootleg mixmeister Richard X. Entitled Foxbase Beta, the producer was given access to the original master tapes, and invited to add whatever he wished. 

Fittingly, the X man shared the band’s omnivorous musical appetites, with Bob Stanley enthusing to Pitchfork: “He has created something really special – spruced-up yet reverential, it is essentially a 2009 up-date of Foxbase Alpha, given a shot of vodka and a loving caress. We’re chuffed. It feels unnervingly like jumping into a Tardis.”

The packaging, with its Jon Savage sleevenotes and Smiths-inspired gallery of 60s icons, was gorgeous, and an eclectic bonus CD of singles, B-sides and offcuts enhances the sense of joyous adventure. Moreover, the propulsive rework sharpened the stoned fug of much of the material and formed the basis of much of what was played during the band’s spring tour that year, which saw Foxbase Alpha played live in its entirety for the first time. 

In the studio for a Top Of The Pops performance with Étienne Daho excepted (it was ’95, so I was there because of Bowie, natch), the London Bloomsbury Ballroom show on May 15 was my first, and so far only Saint Etienne concert. Perhaps we could do some lovely photos of the city instead?

Steve Pafford, France 

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Previously, the greatest music debuts of all time include: Malcolm McLaren’s Buffalo Gals, Kate Bush’s Wuthering Heights, Roxy Music by Roxy Music, and Air’s Moon Safari.

Further instalments coming soon – and yes, we are looking for contributors 

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